In the 1994 Winter Olympics, the Jamaican bobsled team had its best showing ever. After the first of four runs, the Jamaicans were just 0.83 seconds out of the lead. But despite that strong start, they had virtually no chance to win a medal. That's not because they were from a small, tropical country, nor because they had faltered in previous Olympics. Rather, the Jamaicans had no chance because nobody who's trailing in an Olympic bobsled competition ever has a chance. In 1994, the first-place Germans followed up with three more almost identical runs and went on to win the gold. It happens every time. There is no international competition that's more predictable, or more dreadfully boring.
The rules of Olympic bobsled are simple. In the two-person and four-person events, each team slides down the track four times. (The men compete in both bobsled formats, while women are restricted to the two-at-a-time variety.) The track does not change from round to round. The team with the lowest cumulative time wins.
Seeing as the track does not change, the sled does not change, and the athletes do not change, you may not be surprised to learn that the times do not change much either. While there is some variation round to round, these time differences are so minuscule that dramatic comebacks, or even modest ones, are close to impossible.
The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation keeps detailed statistics back to 2005 for all Olympic and world championship events. In this time period, for all four-man, two-man, and two-woman bobsled competitions, the team ahead after the third run has won 100 percent of the time. The fourth run of an international bobsled competition, then, is the most meaningless event in all of sports — or at least tied for first in the meaninglessness rankings with every preseason NFL game.
The team that's leading after two runs has gone on to win 85 percent of the time, and even after one run the leading team wins 70 percent of competitions.
A well-designed sport has enough variability to create suspense. Imagine if after three quarters of a football game the winner could be predicted 100 percent of the time. Golf, similar to bobsled in that it features an open field competing on the same course four times, is vastly different in terms of predictability. Over the past 10 years of golf majors, the eventual winner was in the lead 15 percent of the time after the first day. After days two and three, the percentage increased to 35 percent and 45 percent respectively.
Is it inherently bad to have a sport that's so predictable? It is at least in the case of bobsled, considering that it features four anonymous helmets poking out of identical sleds, with no particular strategy discernible to the naked eye. Given those parameters, you'd think suspense would be the only reason to watch. Since there's absolutely no suspense to be had, you'd be better off switching to Animal Planet.
Can this terrible sport be fixed? While the Olympics and the world championships feature four runs per team, all other competitions governed by the IBSF mandate only two runs. Bringing that format to the Olympics would increase variability and make the final result more dramatic. Considering that most bobsled competitions are already two runs, it wouldn't bastardize the sport to make this move. Of course, having fewer runs would decrease the chance that the “best” team wins. But that would at least inject a little bit of life into one of the dullest sports ever concocted by man.